Fatal California Crash Ignites Debate About Speed Limiters for Cars

We have known how to do this for a hundred years. It's time.

speed limiter in action


A tragic accident near the Los Angeles area claimed six lives after a woman drove her car at 90 miles per hour through a red light into two cars. The car burst into flames; the security camera video is shocking. In light of the fatal crash, many people, including local politicians, are asking why there are no controls on cars to prevent them from speeding excessively like this.

“I think we also have to hold auto manufacturers accountable,” Assemblymember Laura Friedman said, reports the Los Angeles Times. "They’re all about making the inside of vehicles safer, even as bigger, more powerful vehicles put everyone at greater risk. So why not use technology to make it impossible for cars to go faster than the posted speed limit?"

This is a cause we have been discussing for years, most recently calling for geofencing and speed limiters on North American cars after a tragic crash in Toronto. There is nothing new about them; they were proposed for Cincinnati in 1923. The industry rallied to fight them off and has been fighting them ever since. As Peter Norton wrote in "Fighting Traffic," "After it won, it never returned to a peacetime footing. Institutions and cooperative arrangements formed during the fight persisted and grew."

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Safe streets and walkable communities are key to reducing our carbon emissions from driving. Treehugger prioritizes pedestrian safety and advocates for regulations making roads more sustainable and less deadly.

I noted in "Big Surprise: The Car Industry Doesn't Like the Idea of Speed Governors" how they shifted the argument:

"It changed the discussion about safety. No longer would there be any thought about limiting speed. Indeed, one industry executive explained that “the motor car was invented so that man could go faster” and that “the major inherent quality of the automobile is speed.” Instead, the approach to safety would be to control the pedestrians and get them out of the way—to separate them with jaywalking laws and strict controls. Over time, safety would be redefined to make roads safer for cars, not people."
A graphic about what is intelligent speed assistance.
European Transport Safety Council

However, it seems that the discussion about safety is changing again. People are getting fed up with 40,000 Americans killed and untold numbers injured every year in car crashes.

In Europe, Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA)—the polite name for speed limiters—became mandatory on new cars as of July 6 this year. Except it isn't really a speed limiter. The industry is still fighting tooth and nail and got it watered down to where it just gives you an audio or haptic warning that must be “as short as possible in duration to avoid potential annoyance of the driver.” You can also turn it off or just push the accelerator a little harder.

As the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), which pushed for the ISA noted, it's pretty useless:

"The most basic system allowed simply features an audible warning that starts a few moments after the vehicle exceeds the speed limit and continues to sound for a maximum of five seconds. ETSC says research shows audible warnings are annoying to drivers, and therefore more likely to be switched off. A system that is deactivated has no safety benefit."

Drivers everywhere are outraged by the thought of this. One commenter on Treehugger said it's the "beginning of the end to freedom of movement." Another wrote: "Won't it be great when our own Marxist totalitarian government follows suit. We'll have a green agenda to save the planet, kill switches in cars, governors on the speed capabilities -- and that's just for starters."

In the United Kingdom, nobody wants to buy European cars anymore, telling Daily Express that “we Brexiteers should be free to drive at whatever speed we like.” 

David Zipper covers the recent tragedy and calls for speed controls in Bloomberg's CityLab.

"The biggest beneficiaries would be urban residents stuck with roadways designed decades ago with maximum traffic flow rather than safety top of mind. Using geolocation, a vehicle equipped with an adaptive speed governor would recognize the posted limits on any stretch of road and prevent the driver from going more than a few miles over it (or at least make it more difficult to do so). As the motorist continues on their journey, the car’s mechanical capabilities would adjust along with posted limits."

Technically, the problem is trivial; it is almost standard on shared scooters. Even BMW announced that its new e-bike "uses geo-fencing to know where the bike is, thus allowing it to automatically adjust its top speed" so "you don’t have maniacs riding at 37 mph down the bike lane and your local park."

But, as Zipper concluded, "Of course, it’s hard to imagine how even the most recklessly operated e-scooter could cause anywhere near the carnage seen last week at La Brea and Slauson. By requiring speed governors on these tiny machines rather than on cars, we’re using the right tool — but not on the vehicles that need them most."

We have cars that are designed to go speed on roads that were engineered to go fast with speed limits that make you go slow. Without even talking about the speed demons and racers, it's almost difficult for drivers to go the speed limit; perhaps they need a little help ... a little intelligent speed assistance.

View Article Sources
  1. "Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.